What is it that people thought was going to happen when an indie filmmaker known for quiet, thoughtful character dramas made a massive blockbuster Marvel movie? Apologies to Thanos, but this is the outcome that was truly inevitable. Eternals is a cinematic Frankenstein’s monster that invites fascination before pleading for its own death.
Ambitious, creative elements are hobbled by having to stop and explain cosmic theology at a kindergarten level. Gorgeous, hauntingly cold visuals are interrupted by ugly, forgettable fight sequences. An amazingly talented cast – playing surprisingly nuanced characters – is forced to dial every performance to “I can’t believe Tide got the stain out!” levels. It’s Shakespeare by Cliff’s Notes, a Kidz Bop Nirvana cover, a musical episode of The Wire.
To their credit, writer/director Chloé Zhao and cowriters Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo certainly tried to get away with what they could. Eternals features the first tangible proof that coitus exists in the Marvel universe and has a third act that legally counts as plot-heavy, character driven narrative. But to please the Marvel masses, it also features immortals cracking modern one-liners about 7,000 years before slang was invented, multiple “OMG cell phones are so addictive” discussions, and a post-credits cameo that feels like the product of an online poll or tween focus group.
Given the absolutely relentless ad campaign, you almost certainly know the film’s conceit. A sentient giant space phallus tasks immortal beings who have superpowers with guarding humanity against the evil deviants. Wait, does that also work as a summary of the Mormon faith? The movie has like eleventy billion characters, but the important to know are Sersi (Gemma Chan) and her sorta-ex hubby Ikaris (Richard Madden). After centuries split apart, they must gather their old gang together again before an earth-ending event occurs. To Eternals’ credit, saying more would ruin some legitimately compelling surprises.
Superhero escapism has long been compared with mythology cosplay. This is the first time in film form that divinely powered beings were actually forced to deal with a true God-level moral quandary. Perhaps part of the reason why folks aren’t resonating with the flick as much is because it hinges on the notion that human beings are inherently special and worth saving. The last few years in real life have sure felt like “Exhibit A” in the legal counterargument to that defense.
Whatever credit can be given to Marvel for wanting to step outside their formula, which Eternals inarguably completely does, gets immediately docked for a failure to fully commit to going bonkers weird. Every clever, artistic choice is undercut by mainstream red meat. Druig (Barry Keoghan), who has near-limitless mind control powers, grapples with whether cleansing thoughts of genocide from humanity is morally just. That’s riveting AF! So, of course, he also turns into a doe-eyed cute and flirty dipshit whenever Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is around. Each time the film’s intentionally melodramatic self-seriousness finally feels comfortable, somebody drops a pie, asks about Captain America, or namechecks Ikea. Even the length of the movie would be fine, had it not felt like a heady space opera bloated only by a requirement for a specific number of punches. Honestly, Eternals would have felt more comfortable as a 10-hour series than a nearly 3-hour blockbuster. The whole thing feels like a beautiful promise poorly kept.
Is it bad? No. Should it be praised for bravely stepping out of the Marvel box? Also no. Letting a dog out of its cage while chaining it to a short leash isn’t the same as giving it a chance to run free. This feels like a coldly commercial creative calculation instead of letting a talented group of artists play in an infinite sandbox. No harm, no foul, but also no big whoop.
Grade = C+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture says “Marvel has grown so powerful in part because of how it treats diversity and identity as a checklist; the Eternals characters indeed range in ability, race, and sexuality. But what does it matter to have, say, a gay kiss onscreen, when there’s no heat behind it? What does it matter if the women are of various hues and ages if you don’t care about their interiority?”
Ruben Peralta Rigaud at Cocalecas.net says “One wishes that Zhao had been allowed to do an existential superhero drama instead of putting up this strange compromise.” [Full review in Spanish.]
Glen Weldon at NPR says “The film stops dead, from time to time, for beautiful people to debate the fate of the planet and their respective roles in it.”